Yesterday was the annual general meeting of what is known as the Wellspring Community in Australia. This is a sister community to the Iona Community in the UK. Like the Iona Community, it seeks to draw on the ancient traditions of both Celtic and Benedictine Christianity and to marry these with contemporary concerns for justice, peace and spiritual well-being. I have been a member of the Wellspring Community for well over a decade now and it has been a strength, inspiration and encouragement to me. Like any other Christian community, it has also sometimes been a source of much frustration and failing. For that is the nature of any human community, whether it is gathered in a place or a number of close-by places, like a parish community, or whether it is more dispersed, like the Wellspring Community or the Third Order of Franciscans, of which other people are a part. For being part of a spiritual community is an integral part of what it is to be a Christian. Indeed, in this continuing Easter season, we can say that the Church, as a spiritual community, is actually the Resurrection Body of Christ among us…
Firstly, in our reading from Acts chapter 2 verses 42-47, we have a picture from the early days of the Church as to how it may have been and is intended to be. What are the marks of this picture of Church: the marks of the resurrected Body of Christ? Well some of them are familiar, aren’t they? They are what we are hopefully doing this morning. Those first followers of Jesus, we are told, ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’. Well that’s what we are doing right now, isn’t it? And they devoted themselves to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. Well, we are also doing that aren’t we? But then it becomes a little trickier, as we read on…
‘Awe came upon everyone’, we are told, ‘because many signs and wonders were being done by the apostles.’ Is that happening? Actually, I think it should be happening, because there are signs and wonders among us, it we would recognise them. What about sharing ‘all things in common’ though, and selling possessions and distributing them as there is need? I don’t know about you, but I find that very challenging. What percentage of our income do we share together as Church, I wonder? Even very conservative churches who practice strict tithing only tend to demand 10% of someone’s income. Yet this early Church picture suggests that everything is to be shared. We also give to projects such as our parish larder, don’t we? Yet we don’t really sell up our assets when there is a particular need among others. Today’s first reading is therefore a major challenge to us.
What is being said, do you think? Is it that we should all become primitive communists, or social anarchists? Well, there is a case for that. I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus came back today, he would soon be locked up by the authorities as a dangerous radical and spiritual communist! Yet probably we are intended to see this passage as presenting an ideal of Christian community, rather than a blueprint for all Christian organisation and politics. Holding everything in common works best after all for small groups, rather than for a complex society, nation or set of nations in our world. Nonetheless, we should not just move on from this reading, with a sigh of relief. For it challenges us to ponder our interconnectedness and how, together, we can share the gifts God has given us and care for those in need. It calls us to greater generosity, in church & world.
Our first reading today certainly calls us to share what might be called the generous ‘spirit’ of the Resurrection and to make it real. As they gathered, we are told, those early Christians did so ‘with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.’ We can work on that, can’t we, even if we keep our separate bank accounts? For sharing such a spirit in practical ways means we are then sharing in the Resurrection and others, as in this early Church account, will then be drawn to us. I think that that is a major reason for the existence of groups such as the Wellspring Community, of which I am a part, and the Third Order of Franciscans, and other similar bodies. For they allow us to explore this spirit of Resurrection and to relate to one another a little more as those first Christians did to one another and to others. That is also one of the major reasons for small groups within the larger body of a parish church community. For in a small group we can grow more like the ideal we hear about in our first reading today. In a small group or community we can nurture the marks of hospitality, charity, mutuality, and more intimate worship which are true marks of the Church. So try it, taste it, and see.
Our second reading builds on the first in giving us a series of images for the Church, for the Resurrection Body of Christ. We are to be, 1 Peter 2.1-10, says ‘like living stones… a spiritual house, a holy priesthood… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.’ Wow, that is some calling, isn’t it? Is that how we see and feel ourselves to be? That’s what we are created and intended to be. So how are we going with it?
There is not time to explore all those amazing images of what it is to be Church, to be the Resurrection Body of Christ. I hope however that each of us might take them away with us and ponder them more deeply, and then share our insights with one another. For this is at the heart of what it is to be together as Church, to belong together and to become together, in our second reading’s words, people who can help lead others ‘out of darkness into God’s marvellous light.’ So what do we need to do, do you think, to become ‘living stones’?
The use of the words ‘living stones’ and ‘spiritual house’ for us as Church is extremely deliberate here in the Bible. They are explicitly used to distinguish Christian lives and worship from those of others. For Jesus had led the way when he talked about the temple that mattered being his body not the great building in Jerusalem which was known as a temple. The early Church took this further. St Paul, for instance, spoke of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. For the stones which matter in our lives are the ‘living stones’ of each other not the stones which make up temples or other buildings.
It is therefore sadly, and tragically, ironic, isn’t it, that the word ‘church’ became associated with buildings: with the buildings (like this one in which are meeting this morning) in which Christians gathered, rather than with the people, the Christians, the ‘living stones’, themselves? What a travesty, especially when Christians sometimes give more attention to these dead stones of buildings, rather than the ‘living stones’ of one another and the needy beyond our walls! What will we, ourselves, do about this? I, for one, give thanks daily for buildings like this, and for the improvements (like our audio-visual screens, and our galley soon) which each generation needs to make. Yet, at the end of the day, I hope that I would have the courage, to give it all up if it were needed. For that is the spirit of our readings: the spirit of the true Resurrection Body of Christ.
Our Gospel reading today brings this together in another image of the Church, Christ’s Resurrection Body. It is a beautiful image drawn from everyday rural life in Jesus’ day. It is the image of the shepherd who is, himself, the gate of the sheepfold. The shepherd himself helps the sheep enter, cares and sustains them, and completes the fold with his very self. In othere words: yes, of course our first reading will become an impossible ideal, if Christ Jesus is not present. Of course, ‘living stones’ will become as dead as the stones of church buildings, if Christ Jesus is not present. Yet, where Christ is present, and where you and I enter in, we ‘may have life, and have it abundantly.’
In the name of the true shepherd, the gate and the cornerstone, Amen.